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The greatest oddity in NASCAR racing is that its best driver has never won its biggest race. But just after indicating that this sticks in his craw, Earnhardt snaps, "It bothers y'all [the media]. It don't bother me. I'm still confident that I've got several shots to win it."
In recent years Earnhardt has been the dominant force of Daytona Speed Week each February, running away with various preliminary races and then dominating the 500 itself—until the final laps. In 1990, his nearest miss, he commanded the race for almost exactly 499 miles and then ran over debris that cut one of his tires and allowed then unknown Derrike Cope to slip past him and win. (And even at that moment of dumbfounding defeat, Earnhardt was spectacular, saving his fishtailing car from what appeared to the passing Cope to be a certain crash.)
Since then, every Daytona 500 has been the same song, different verse. Last year Earnhardt's late-breaking problem was that his car just didn't handle well. Being so consistently strong at Daytona, controlling everything that can be controlled, "you gotta win it sometime," Earnhardt says. "Or several times." And so, at least in his quest to win the biggest stock car race there is, he has a reason to remain in a hurry.
Back in his office, in a corner of his 400-acre farm near Mooresville, N.C., Earnhardt wonders aloud if there'll be time to pack a bag for wherever the Lear is about to take him today. (His leatherbound datebook says it's Atlanta.) He continues to turn out the lightning autographs, concentrating now on the trading cards, and suddenly he sends one flying out of the stack and onto the coffee table, saying, "Hey, Don!"
Hawk examines it. "That's a bootleg card," he says.
Earnhardt has contracts with six different trading-card companies, and he autographs cards by the "thousands and thousands and thousands," he says. But this lean, mean signing machine has a laser eye for one little unlicensed card in a box with hundreds of licensed ones.
"If you endorse it. you're saying it's legal." says Hawk. "Somebody got Dale to sign one of these [he holds up a picture postcard] at a racetrack, put it on a laser machine, made a copy, and now they've turned it into a trading card. There's no contract, no agreement with anybody."
"Fans send that stuff in to get it signed, and I can't sign it, and they get mad," says Earnhardt.
In rushes a courier from Sports Image Inc., the major distributor of Earnhardt souvenirs, with a bootleg poster the company's scouts have caught. "You can sue those people," Earnhardt tells the man. "You gotta get those guys. Sports Image sells our posters. It's Sports Image's damn responsibility to pursue that sum-bitch. If I'm gonna have to pursue it, I'm gonna start doing those posters myself!" (This is no idle threat. In the coming weeks Earnhardt would buy out Sports Image and make himself CEO.)
"They just wanted you to see it," says the courier.